Charged with overcoming a predicted hyper-competitive Eastern Conference, a disruptive coaching change, and roster unrest, the 2008 Fire exceeded expectations: They finished third in overall points, ousted their perennial MLS Cup Playoff foe New England in the Conference semifinals, and pushed eventual MLS Cup winner Columbus to the brink.
Just weeks before the start of 2008, the Fire announced the resignation of coach Juan Carlos Osorio. Osorio led the Fire into the 2007 MLS Cup Playoffs, weaving a 10-game unbeaten run during his three-month tenure. Despite CEO John Guppy's efforts to retain the Colombian, Osorio departed to New York.
The search for a head coach began immediately. The Fire didn't stray far to find the club's fourth-ever head coach, opting to hire long-time Fire assistant Denis Hamlett.
Hamlett led the Fire to an impressive start; the team lost only two games through the month of June. Yet, as summer arrived, the Fire attack was anemic. Even after the arrival of Brian McBride in mid-August, the offense remained a poor compliment to their defense, which was led by MLS Best XI members Jon Busch and Bakary Soumare.
Inconsistencies aside, Fire regulars Justin Mapp, Chris Rolfe, Gonzalo Segares, and John Thorrington notably performed. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, instrumental to everything offensive, puttered midseason like his teammates, yet his creative, inspired play still garnered admiration, earning him a Best XI selection.
Nearing the end of the regular season yet still inconsistent, the Fire remained in MLS Cup contention. They would fall short. After routing the New England Revolution at home, in the second leg of their Eastern Conference semifinal, the Fire no doubt felt vindicated. A championship was not to be though, as the Fire's MLS Cup chase ended in Columbus.
With a team built around veterans poised to win this past fall, and a defense full of transfer targets, Chicago enters 2009 anxious of the future and no doubt irked by what could have been.
January: It was a tough start to the New Year: Osorio abandoned the Fire for New York Red Bulls, while Wilman Conde beged for a trade (through the press) to follow Osorio. Things brightened considerably, though, as the Fire hired coach Denis Hamlett, unveiled Best Buy as their jersey sponsor, and drafted Patrick Nyarko— a coup, few predicted the striker would fall to the seventh spot in the MLS SuperDraft.
February: With the departure of Matt Pickens, the Fire found their goalkeeper replacement in Jon Busch. That choice proved wise; Busch won his first Panasonic MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in November. The Fire also signed Poland international Tomasz Frankowski, believing the striker, in the words of Hamlet, to be "clinical around the box." He was not.
March: Opening at Real Salt Lake, the Fire escaped with a point, after Blanco's injury-time stunner. Along with Blanco's moment of inspiration, Soumare, save the unfortunate own-goal, and Jon Busch both performed well, foreshadowing the tandem's Best XI selections. Record: 0 wins, 1 tie, 0 loses.
April: The Fire made their Toyota Park season debut against the New England Revolution. Bounced from the playoffs in 2005, 2006, and 2007 at the hands of the visitors, Chicago dominated the contest, routing the Revs 4-0. The Fire then traveled to San Jose, facing the latest incarnation of the Earthquakes. Chad Barrett scored the winner in the 1-0 victory. Returning home, the Fire lost to the Kansas City Wizards, despite firing 19 shots, 1-0, before closing the month with a 2-0 victory against the Colorado Rapids, via a John Thorrington brace. The month closed with more post- Osorio drama. Lider Marmol, coveted by Osorio in New York, his rights owned by Chicago, signed the defender after weeks of uncertainty. Record: 3 wins, 0 ties, 1 loss.
May: A month after their demolition of the Revolution, the Fire traveled to New England and again handed the perennial MLS Cup runners-up a loss—this time 3-0. The Fire continued their domination of fellow Eastern Conference opponents, winning against DC United on national television. The victory capped by a left-footed screamer from Blanco. The Fire then dropped a 2-1 contest to Houston Dynamo in soggy Chicago. The Fire closed May in a three-way tie atop the Eastern Conference after a 5-1 away rout of the New York Red Bulls. A pair of braces, one each from Barrett and Blanco, capped the best stretch of the Fire's 2008 season. Record: 3 wins, 0 ties, 1 loss.
June: Some months are just easier to forget. Chicago's lone victory, a 3-2 US Open Cup victory against the Columbus Crew, was also the only game in the month of June in which the Fire scored. Record: 1 win, 1 tie, 3 losses.
July: With June in their review, the Fire had nowhere to go but up in July. They began the final month before the All-Star break with a 2-2 tie at Columbus, a game they gave away thanks to a late Crew goal. In their quarterfinal U.S. Open Cup match, host by DC United, the Fire again conceded late, this time in first extra period, to bow-out of the competition. Returning to regular season play, Thorrington pounced on a failed Greg Sutton clearance for Toronto FC, delivering a needed victory to the home side. Despite the moral boost from their first multi-goal game in over a month, the Fire’s offensive struggles continued in a 0-0 home tie with Real Salt Lake.
Seemingly incapable of replicating their early-season success, the All-Star break couldn’t have come sooner. Rather surprisingly, Blanco was the only Fire All-Star. He represented his spurned teammates well, earning the Volkswagen All-Star Game MVP. Beyond the award, Blanco and the Fire received more good news: Brian McBride signed after the Fire traded forward Barrett and their 2009 first round draft pick to Toronto FC, who held the former Crew striker’s rights. Record: 2 win, 1 draw, 2 losses; eliminated from US Open Cup in quarterfinals.
August: Rookie Nyarko and July loan signing Marco Pappa both stared in the Fire’s first game of the second half, a 1-0 victory over visiting Chivas USA, the former netting his first professional goal. The Fire then won their second straight game, their first back-to-back victories since early May, in a 2-0 away victory against the Revolution. The win gave the Fire a season sweep of their rivals. McBride made his long-awaited Fire debut in a 1-0 loss against spoilers DC United. McBride’s sour debut was erased in his first start, filling the void left by an ailing Blanco, in a 1-0 away win against the LA Galaxy. A deft pass from McBride to Thorrington was enough to spoil Bruce Arena’s first game for LA. The Fire dropped their final game of the summer away to the Houston Dynamo, leaving the Fire in third place in the Eastern Conference at month’s end. Record: 3 wins, 0 ties, 2 losses.
September: Consistently inconsistent, the Fire enjoyed victories against New York and a prime-time home win against the Galaxy, while losing 2-0 away to the Rapids and a shameful 4-1 home loss to FC Dallas. It was off the field the Fire made the most notable headlines, inking Mapp to a 4-year extension. Blanco announced his retirement from international soccer, appearing for a final time in a 2-1 World Cup qualifier against Canada. Carried off the field, the two-time World Cup veteran believed it to be his 100 appearance for El Tri, yet FIFA reports in December called to question the number, eventually settling on 97. It is uncertain if Blanco will renounce his retirement to pursue the coveted career marker. Record: 2 wins, 0 ties, 2 losses.
October: Charged to steady for their playoff push, the Fire did enough in October to secure the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Draws with Kansas City and Columbus, away and home respectively, forced the Fire to settle for second in the Conference with final two games to go. After dropping 3-2 away in Toronto, the Fire headed home yet to wrap home field advantage in the opening round. Rolfe hit three goals in the first half, and the Fire rolled the Red Bulls 5-2. It was a fitting send-off for Fire original Diego Gutierrez, whose retirement made it his last regular season game for Chicago. Record: 1 win, 2 ties, 1 loss.
November: The Fire was paired with Revolution for their Eastern Conference semifinal. Minding their regular season dominance, the Fire was heavily favored. After a tepid opening 0-0 tie, hosted by a severely depleted New England team, Chicago returned home the heavy favorites to advance. They did so in dominant fashion, winning the series after their 3-0 second-leg victory, with goals coming from Rolfe, Conde and Segares. In the winner-take-all Conference championship, the Fire faced the Supporters Shield winners, the Columbus Crew. McBride, the Crew’s and MLS’s first-ever draft pick, nearly wrote a perfect playoff script for the Fire after heading home a Mapp cross for a first half lead. In the second half, the Crew capably constructed their response: goals from Chad Marshall and Eddie Gaven 10 minutes after the restart. Record: 1 win, 1 tie, 1 loss; eliminated from MLS Cup Playoffs in Eastern Conference Finals.
December: Shortly after their playoff elimination, the Fire loaned Blanco to Santos Laguna for their Apertura title chase. Blanco inspired, but the squad, like the Fire, fell in the semifinals. Soumare also featured in extracurricular matches, traveling to England with Generation Adidas members for a series of friendly matches with Premiership reserve teams. Meanwhile, Conde reportedly told his Chicago-area friends he wouldn't return to the Fire in 2009, and his area cell phone was disconnected. The Fire also entered December without Frankowski and Herron (both waived). Without these figureheads, along with Gutierrez (retired), the Fire would open nearly $600,000 in salary cap space. Those funds are for plenty of players needed for a team built to win now. It won’t be any easier in 2009 for the veteran-heavy squad to realize the dreams of what 2008 could have been.
John Mantia is a regular contributor to Goal.com
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